The army of part-time professors teaching at the region’s colleges are merely working stiffs at the bottom of an enormous and lucrative enterprise.
One Thursday afternoon last spring, I was wrapping up my expository-writing class at Bentley University when a woman walked into the classroom and strode straight up to me. Judging from her looks, I thought she might be a sophomore or junior. “Hi, Professor Becker!” she said, sticking out her hand. As my students shuffled out around us, she told me that she was from Adjunct Action, a campaign run by the Service Employees International Union. From a recent email, I knew she and her ilk were trying to organize adjuncts like me. Together with the SEIU, they had already successfully organized adjuncts at several Washington, DC–area colleges, and the Boston group had made inroads at Tufts, Lesley, and Northeastern.
“How much money do you make?” she boldly asked.
I stopped stuffing my laptop into my bag, tucked my hair behind my ears, and briefly studied her lineless face. Given that she was stalking me, I suspected she already knew the answer, but when the room was empty, I told her: “Five thousand per class.”
“How do you live on that?” she asked.
Her question pissed me off. How could someone so young ask me something so audacious? I was also secretly embarrassed. In truth, no one can really live on my pay. She continued pelting me with personal questions: “What are you doing about benefits? Do you teach anywhere else?”
I didn’t have time to hang out and talk—I needed to tear out of there to meet my boys after school. I told her I had to leave and tried to nonchalantly walk past. She kept stride and continued, “You don’t have 10 minutes to talk about how to make life better for adjuncts?” Obviously this chick didn’t have kids and never had to meet an elementary school bus.
Truth is, I never thought I had much use for unions. I once joined one to teach high school English in the late 1990s, but that’s because I would have been charged a fee to opt out. Instead, I’d set out to become a professor, someone who had no need for striking and sign waving. I earnestly built a portfolio of published pieces, got a second master’s degree, and jumped at the chance to teach an introductory journalism course at Boston University. I expected that I’d eventually land a full-time professorship and continue writing.
It didn’t turn out that way. I’ve been an adjunct for seven years, teaching what many schools consider a full course load: two or three classes per semester. Last school year, I spent 30 to 40 hours a week planning, teaching, meeting with students, writing recommendations, and grading for my gigs at Bentley and Boston University. In that time, I made a grand total of $27,300.
In spite of my paltry salary, whenever I saw that union rep on the Bentley quad, deep in conversation with a small crowd of adjuncts, I kept on walking, even though her pointed questions back in my classroom, within earshot of students, had touched a nerve. I was already self-conscious about my underpaid, unrecognized, non-status job. When people learned what I earned, they’d return a polite smile and silently compare my teaching career to their kids’ summer job. But it’s not like I wanted to talk to a stranger about it. Or did I?
Here it goes: My name is Lisa Liberty Becker, and I’m an adjunct professor. Everyone understands the professor part of my title; teaching is my passion. But the adjunct part (as in “add-junk”) removes all dignity from the equation. It classifies me as a contingent worker—hired and paid by the course, semester to semester, with no job security or paid benefits. If you’re into etymology, the word adjunct refers to something added to another thing, but not essential to it. Just like me.